One of the greatest things about practicing architecture and interior design in the South is the abundance of accessible crafts people. Woodworkers, ironmongers, decorative finishers, you name it – we’ve got them coming out of the, well… woodwork.
IMG_1852Recently, I needed some furniture reupholstered for my upcoming Manhattan move. I unhesitatingly went straight to my go-to furniture master, a jovial fellow named Tom Berry here in Montgomery. While visiting with Tom, it suddenly struck me that I’ve been working with him for almost thirty years. Way back before there was an official mass-marketed McAlpine Home furniture line, Tom used to make our imaginative one-of-a-kind creations here in his modest workshop. Whatever we dreamed up, Tom would dutifully build the frames and upholster them. Here in a little storefront, high design met old-school.

At the risk of sounding corny, walking in Tom’s shop is like stepping back in time. I grew up in the Deep South so workshops like these litter my memory. Now that I’m about to move away, though, I stop and savor things – sewing machines, bolts and bolts of fabric, a pin-up girlie calendar, a collection of decades of yellowed business licenses, taxidermy, faded newspaper clippings, coffee cans full of hardware, all orchestrated to the distant and tinny soundtrack of conservative talk radio. The most astute Hollywood set designer could not have appointed it better. But to Tom, it’s just another day at the office.

Tom’s been trying to wind down a bit. He wants to play golf more. He tells me it’s hard to find people to do this kind of work so now it’s just him and a helper named (appropriately) Dog. I’m not surprised because his standard and work ethic have always been high. After all, he tells me he’s been making furniture since he was a child. Wanting to earn money to buy his first bicycle, Tom went door to door selling homemade footstools for $1.50. He suddenly wants to show me something.  We wander back through his warehouse, maneuvering through a graveyard of unwanted furniture and past cracked windows violated by the ever-persistent Virginia Creeper vine.  We end our precarious journey way in the back where he shows me his very first upholstery job – the tooled leather seat of an old wooden office chair, masterfully crafted by his then nine-year-old hands. I can easily see by the twinkle in his eyes, he’s just as proud of this as the day it was finished.

We pay his modest bill (Tom has always been fast and reasonable) and leave, a bit sad and deep in the knowledge that they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

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Faithfully,

Greg Tankersley for McAlpine Tankersley

7 comments

  1. Judy Frazer says:

    Having known Tom for almost 40 years, I love reading this. I also realize that Tom will calmly and respectfully disregard any praise that comes his way. He is the old- fashion fellow who stops what he is doing to spend time with me when I randomly stop in -sometimes just to say hello, sometimes to take his crew a food treat, and sometimes to ask a favor…another upholstery chore I want to create. I love Tom. I love going to his 110 degree shop… He says the air conditioning unit that is falling off the wall costs too much to run! My heart fills with joy after laughing with him over stories neither one of us really cares about. He has been my best friend on Perry Street, and realizing he will one day no longer be there makes the moment sad. Thank you Tom for our treasures that you helped make beautiful! ( Someone will have to print all this and show to Tom… Doubt he ever wasted his time with new technology.)

  2. What a treasure. I have a very good upholstery master, but the old gentleman I used the first 15 years of marriage retired. He reminds me of Tom. I hope you manage to get all of your personal furniture upholstered before you leave the south, although I imagine there are some great craftsmen in NY as well.
    Karen

  3. Katrina blades says:

    Such a beautifully told story of your experienced artisans. I always enjoy your heartfelt descriptions of what makes life in the design industry so rewarding.

  4. John moore says:

    Greg captures that mental serenity that over takes us when we revisit or relive those moments of our past that touched our hearts, that is what makes the best art. Whether it be with a brush, a tool or the pen, it must be created under the influence of a strong desire to take others somewhere you’ve been. Yes, Greg gets that. Great job Sir!

  5. You are so right. Tom and his crew are very special people. It has been a joy to know him all these years.

  6. Joni schlender says:

    What a great story. When you move here I’ll bet he will ship whatever you need 🙂

  7. Rhonda Summerlin says:

    Wish you had shared this little tidbit with us earlier! It is always hard to find good upholstery folks. He sounds like a very special man who loves his work & I’m sure it shows. Enjoyed the article.

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